4.3 Percent Decrease in Applications for Doctoral Programs!

Dear Commons Community,

A combination of factors may be fueling the decline in the number of applicants for doctoral degrees.  Concerns about working conditions, low stipends, securing academic jobs, and  graduate-education debt levels may all be contributing to a 4.3 percent decrease in the number of applicants in 2015 to doctoral programs compared to 2014.  According to the latest national data released yesterday by the Council of Graduate Schools and as reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Among colleges that participated in the Council’s survey, the 656,928 applications to their doctoral programs in 2015 amounted to a 4.3-percent decrease when compared with colleges that responded a year earlier.

The drop appears to be sizable, but it’s too soon to tell whether it’s a blip or a trend. Council officials warned against making too much of one year’s data. Doctoral applications, for example, increased at an average annual rate of 0.2 percent when the lens is broadened to the five-year period from 2010 to 2015 — not impressive but not indicating an impending crisis, either.

The decline in doctoral applications doesn’t surprise John A. Stevenson, who recently stepped down as dean of the graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“Doctoral education right now as an institution is under so much scrutiny that people are questioning the wisdom of pursuing a Ph.D.,” says Mr. Stevenson. “I would have been surprised if there wasn’t a decrease.”

The picture is rosier for master’s, graduate-level certificate, and education-specialist programs. Applications for those programs increased by 3.8 percent from 2014 to 2015, and at an average annual rate of 4.8 percent from 2010 to 2015. That isn’t too surprising, either: Master’s programs are proliferating and often viewed as cash cows for colleges.

Over all, first-time enrollment in graduate programs increased by 3.9 percent from 2014 to 2015. The 506,927 incoming graduate students in the fall of 2015 set a new record for first-time enrollment. Most are master’s students; 16.4 percent, or 83,099, are doctoral students.

The trends vary across disciplines. Applications to doctoral programs in the arts and humanities, which have faced some of the toughest questions about value, decreased by 2.7 percent in 2015, and by an average annual rate of 3 percent from 2010 to 2015. Applications to all graduate programs — including doctoral, master’s, and graduate-certificate and education-specialist programs — in arts and humanities declined at an average annual rate of 2.8 percent from 2010 to 2015.

One-year drops in doctoral applications were even steeper in some fields, such as health sciences, which fell by 12.3 percent, and business, which saw a 6.1-percent decline. Unlike in the arts and humanities, however, those disciplines saw average annual increases in applications for master’s programs over five years.

The field that saw the largest increase in graduate applications was mathematics and computer sciences, at 9.4 percent from 2014 to 2015, and an average annual increase of 18.1 percent from 2010 to 2015. At the doctoral level, mathematics and computer sciences saw a 3.8-percent increase in applications from 2014 to 2015, and an annual average rate of increase of 2 percent from 2010 to 2015.”

I found the report interesting. It also contains a plethora (more  than 30 tables) of data describing graduate school admissions, enrollment, and graduation rates.



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